While millions of casual fans consume and appreciate Marvel’s fare in theaters or on Disney+ for its simple entertainment value, there are others who regularly sit in deep conversations with each other, debating details and interpreting messages.
The success of Marvel content relies on these hardcore, studious fans and their deep knowledge of the intertextual epics that make up decades of Marvel comic book lore and the cinematic juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). They rewatch and revisit the interlocking texts — origin stories, massive crossovers, assorted apocrypha and so on — offering commentary and observations.
While there isn’t any overt Judaism in “Loki” — which ended its six-episode first season on July 14 and is available for streaming on Disney+ — there are ways to apply a Jewish lens to its narrative and the experiences of its eponymous character. (And if you think this is a stretch, stay tuned for my piece next year comparing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Natalie Portman’s Lady Thor to megillah queens Vashti and Esther.)
SPOILER WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for the first five episodes of “Loki,” the Avengers movie franchise and the Talmud.
Loki is the Norse god of mischief and a slippery, self-interested agent of chaos. In the new show, a younger and more immature version of Loki than the one we’ve come to know over a decade of Marvel films is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and is charged with capturing another more dangerous Loki “variant” (i.e. a version of himself from another timeline) who threatens the entirety of the “sacred timeline” (i.e. all of existence).
“For three individuals the land contracted, and each one miraculously reached his destination quickly.”
— Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on Talmud Sanhedrin 95a
Time travel stories disrupt reality and permit characters to escape the limits of geography. While the MCU has its time heists and branched timelines, the Talmud might have referred to the TVA’s time travel as a kefitzat haderech (a shortening, or literally, “jump” of the way) that allows characters in stories to travel vast distances — or time periods — in a single day.
The fragmentation may seem jarring, like a multiverse of madness (I see you, upcoming “Doctor Strange” sequel), but removing the structure of chronology releases storytelling into a chaotic state, in which characters and stories can grow beyond the containment of consecutive moments.
This state is particularly appropriate for Loki. And according to the 13th century French commentator Chizkuni, “Whenever the author of the Torah did not want to interrupt a certain subject under discussion, one way of achieving this was to ignore chronology.”
“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he personally left Egypt.”
— Mishnah Pesachim 10:5
At the TVA, Loki is forced to view a supercut of the life he hasn’t yet lived: he sees the death of his parents, the destruction of his home Asgard, his turn from villain to hero, and his death. You can see it on actor Tom Hiddleston’s face in the scene: It is suddenly as if he had experienced these things personally. It’s a key element in his journey, in understanding that the future may significantly change him.
Later in the series, he descends into a lair of Loki variants — Kid Loki, Classic Loki, Boastful Loki, Lady Loki, Alligator Loki, President Loki — that show him where different choices might have landed him. But while all of them traveled different paths, their essential, chaotic, mischievous Loki nature always led them to being removed from the timeline by the TVA. Likewise, on Passover we look back at how the past has shaped us — each of us our own person, but all essentially Jewish.
“Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted.”
— Pirkei Avot 3:15
Free will is a tricky thing, especially when juxtaposed with the ideas of fate, destiny — or a universe overseen by a powerful deity. Throughout this series and the movies that led up to it, Loki has said time and again that he is “burdened with glorious purpose.” Always acting to acquire power for himself, he feels it as a weighty destiny that is his to carry, even if it crushes him. At this critical juncture, Loki regards his variants with despair: If different life paths led all these Lokis to the same place, is anything in his control at all?
How much of our lives do we control? Is there someone pulling the strings? Are there certain parts of ourselves that are so intrinsic to who we are that they will guide us to the same decisions in every timeline? Are we working to make the world a better place because it’s the right thing to do, because it would benefit us, or because we’re scared of the repercussions if we don’t? And if good and evil are all predetermined, then do either of them really mean anything?
This is the annual work of teshuvah (repentance, literally “return”) that we immerse ourselves in at the start of every new Jewish year. We look inward and consider our impact on and legacy in the world. As Loki puts it, “We take a breather, so I can ask several thousand questions.”
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
— Pirkei Avot 1:14
What makes a Loki a Loki? If he’d had the opportunity to study with Hillel, to whom the quote above is attributed, he might have found out, starting with these three head-scratchers. Loki has learned the first lesson, that he’s the only one he can rely on. But in part two, he might share how solitude has shaped his mistrust of others and how isolation has prevented him from moving his life forward. By the time they got to lessons about loving your neighbor — or perhaps your alternate time variants — as you would love yourself or would like to be loved by others, Loki would have signed up for all of Hillel’s Zoom lectures as he pondered the nature of his very existence.
Can this Loki, or any Loki, act selflessly, set aside his drive to attain power and recalibrate the burden of his glorious purpose to serve others? How does embracing repentance change us and our life journey? As we move toward season two and other Marvel properties, the “Loki” series helps him — and maybe us — find out.